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Future of Community Colleges

Tomorrow's Academy

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Community colleges today are essential to civil society. Everyone (rich and poor, old and young, citizen or not) is welcome, and everyone has an opportunity to study and learn with highly professional faculty. Today, approximately 1,100 community colleges enroll 7.3 million students, half of all undergraduates in the United States.


The posting below looks at changes underway at community colleges and what they mean for the future. It is by Stephen J. Gill* and is from Planning for Higher Education. Volume 45, Number 1, October-December 2016. Society for College and University Planning Copyright © 2016 Society for College and University Planning. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.



Rick Reis

UP NEXT: For Some, Active Learning Can Be a Nightmare


Tomorrow’s Academy

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Future of Community Colleges


Community colleges are at a crossroads. These two-year institutions have grown large and complex over the past 100 years. They have evolved from technical training schools and junior colleges into comprehensive academies serving the educational, economic, and social needs of their communities. But strong headwinds threaten to make these bastions of democracy irrelevant. Can they weather the storm and continue to transform themselves into centers of academic, career, and occupational excellence, or will they succumb to competition from the public and private sectors?

Community colleges today are essential to civil society. Everyone (rich and poor, old and young, citizen or not) is welcome, and everyone has an opportunity to study and learn with highly professional faculty. Today, approximately 1,100 community colleges enroll 7.3 million students, half of all undergraduates in the United States (American Association of Community Colleges 2016).

For many students, this is their gateway to the American middle class. Many come from low-income families and might be first-generation college students. And many (estimates range from 40 to 60 percent) are unprepared for college and the workforce (McNulty 2014). The community college is where these students learn how to learn, prepare themselves to transfer to a four-year college or university, and prepare for the world of work and for well-paying jobs in local companies.

Community colleges in many towns are where local citizens learn a new language, learn how to use the latest computer software, learn to cook, learn about health and fitness, learn about the world, and enrich their lives in many other ways. This is where nonprofit organizations find meeting and event space. This is where community members can hear interesting speakers and are exposed to music, dance, art, and literature.

Even though community colleges have taken on a highly valued role in their local communities, their future is not clear. For one thing, presidents of these institutions are retiring at an increasing rate. In a study by the American Association of Community Colleges (2013), 75 percent of community college presidents plan to retire in the next 10 years—and 42 percent in the next five years. This will create a hiring demand for the best of the best college leaders. Over the past few decades, community colleges have recruited leaders with community college experience mostly from the ranks of faculty, but if these institutions can’t find suitable leaders among available college personnel, they will probably look outside of higher education. That will mean a significant change in the kind of leadership provided and, with that, in the very nature of community colleges.

Community colleges have been an open door to postsecondary education. At the same time, government defunding of higher education, local competition for public and private dollars, and the inability of some colleges to collect local property taxes are putting pressure on community colleges to find alternative ways to attract more dollars while keeping tuition and fees low. Some two-year colleges are adding four-year programs. Some are becoming the contractual training resource for companies and unions. Some are running for-profit entities, such as restaurants, stores, and event spaces.

Another pressure on community colleges is the demand for accountability. This is coming from state legislators and the federal government as well as local taxpayers. These various stakeholders want evidence that their investment in higher education is being used wisely.

The problem with this is that the indicators of success for traditional-age college students in four-year institutions are not the best indicators of success for colleges where students are also working full time and raising a family. Typical community college students stop in/stop out, not following a linear path to completion. Some just want a course or two that will help them get a job. One course in welding might be all a student needs to land a high paying job and thus postpone his or her education.

So, how should community colleges be evaluated? Better indicators for community college students might include, in addition to degree completion,


•    Specific course or program outcomes

•    Licensure pass rates for program completers

•    Career transitions of adult education and GED completers

•    Wage increases and promotions realized by students completing a course of study

•    Work performance of students who complete training programs

•    Achievement of each student’s personal goals.


And should the time frame be three, four, five, six, or more years? The VFA (Voluntary Framework of Accountability) looks at six-year outcomes.  That’s still an arbitrary time frame that doesn’t make sense for someone who stopped out to raise a family or earn a living. However, it is far better than the more limited time frame used by the Department of Education.

Governance, also, is changing dramatically. During the growth spurt of the 1960s that established many new colleges, faculty had a great deal of control over how those institutions functioned. The primary activity of those new colleges was classroom teaching, so faculty leadership made sense at the time. Now that these institutions have become much more complex, with formal classroom instruction only one of a college’s many activities, they need professional administrators who both understand instruction and know how to lead and manage all of the college’s other activities, including responding to the learning needs of local businesses, collaborating with K–12 schools, nurturing relationships with legislators, raising money, developing land, and more.

Community college boards are changing, too. Traditionally, they have been elected or appointed, locally or statewide. This was adequate when the institutions were focused on classroom instruction and policy issues were relatively simple, but now these boards need members who understand finances, fund-raising, higher education law, business management, construction, and technology—as well as teaching and learning.

Citizen lay leaders may or may not have the background and expertise needed to set policy in all of these areas, and they likely will have difficulty understanding the difference between policy and management. This has created tension between boards and presidents that will only become worse as institutions become more complex, more engaged with their communities, and more responsive to demands for accountability. For example, what should boards do about safety on campus? Are citizen board members equipped to deal with this issue? Can they stay at the policy level without interfering in the responsibilities of administrators, staff, and faculty? These are very challenging issues for lay leadership.

And no discussion of the future of the community college can go without mention of the enormous disruptive impact of technology, both operationally and in the classroom. We now have the technology to deliver education anywhere, anytime, on demand, and in a way that meets the needs of each student. No longer do you have to attend a community college to receive a high-quality, low-cost education from excellent student-focused instructors. Students don’t need bricks and mortar to receive a postsecondary education anymore. Of course, online is not the best environment for some of what is taught in community colleges, and many students need the social environment of a campus to help them learn, but that doesn’t negate the competition that is coming from global colleges and universities as well as private, for-profit, online sources of education.

To stay relevant, community colleges must be able to change rapidly in the face of all of the challenges described above. This means more than incremental change. It means changing the methods of instruction to be more responsive to the individual needs of students, creating a wide range of learning opportunities in the community, creatively offering education in an online environment, working closely with K–12 institutions to facilitate the transition to college for all students, collaborating with business and industry to train and develop employees, and doing all of this while keeping costs low.

To stay relevant, community colleges must be able to change rapidly.

It’s very possible that the community college of the future will be a place for forming connections among students, faculty, and staff, with the bulk of knowledge and skills delivered online at the convenience of students. The campus will be a gathering place for social interaction, not for formal classroom instruction. Faculty will no longer be “sage on the stage”; they will be brokers of learning. The senior year of high school will be a transition year in which all seniors will take courses through their local community college as dual-enrolled students do now. The conventional path of study will be two years at a community college and then completion through a four-year college or university regardless of ability, test scores, or family income. Local businesses, industry, nonprofits, and government agencies will turn to community colleges as partners in the learning embedded within the workflow of those organizations.

Two-year colleges have certainly evolved over the past 100 years, and now they are faced with some serious and life-threatening challenges. Whatever the future holds for community colleges, they will have to keep evolving and must continue to keep pace with the rapid changes all around us.



American Association of Community Colleges. 2013. Pending CEO Retirements. Data Points, September. Retrieved October 18, 2016, from the World Wide Web:

———. 2016. 2016 Fact Sheet. Retrieved October 18, 2016, from the World Wide Web:

McNulty, R. 2014. The True Goal of Education: Career and College Ready.

FosterEDU, October 16. Retrieved October 18, 2016, from the World Wide Web:



* STEPHEN J. GILL, PH.D. served as trustee of Washtenaw Community College from 2004 to 2016. He was on the faculty of the University of Michigan School of Education before becoming a consultant on training and learning in organizations. He is co-owner of Learning to be Great, LLC (